Sex Work Against Work

STRASS - Syndicat du Travail Sexuel

While in Anglophone countries the term “sex work” has become quite common, there has been a relative reluctance to discuss it among Francophone intellectuals and activists. Whether among “prohibitionists,” who argue that prostitution can be neither a profession nor work but simply violence, a damage to women’s dignity (as if these two terms were mutually exclusive), or among those who oppose this prohibition yet maintain a kind of “skepticism towards the claim for a recognition of ‘sex work,’” such as Lilian Mathieu, the refusal to speak about sex work is in fact symptomatic of the difficulties that feminists and the left continue to face when discussing women’s labor.1

Even if the topic of sex work might be enjoying growing interest in some parts of the world, the political challenges are by no means new. In the 1970s for example, when a number of feminist collectives launched the “wages for housework” campaign a large part of the left and even of the feminist movement remained hostile to this demand.2  Far from being only a programmatic demand, however, Wages for Housework was instead an invitation; an invitation to radically put not only the whole capitalism system into question, to the extent that capital benefited from the unwaged reproductive work carried out by women, but also the nuclear family itself, in so far as it represents one of the primary places where this exploitation occurs.

Although the Wages for Housework campaign was launched at the very beginning of the 1970s, it was not until 1978 that Carol Leigh, an American sex worker and feminist activist, coined the term “sex work.” And if the claim for “Wages for Housework” might not have the same relevance today now that a large part of domestic work has been commodified – former housewives who have entered the labor market have partly delegated this work to poorer women, especially migrant women – the claim that “sex work is work,” considering the active and often heated discussions it generates, seems more important than ever in our contemporary moment.

Therefore, while certainly taking into account the evolutions in the configuration of the reproductive sector, I will show how “sex work is work” aligns with the struggles for “a wage for housework”; in other words, we will aim to better discern and outline the mutual stakes of the housewives’ struggles and those of sex workers, so as to reaffirm the necessary solidarity between women and the inseparable character of feminist and anti-capitalist struggles. This will allow us to better grasp the relations between sex work and capitalism, and thus reaffirm the need, especially for the left and for feminism, to support these struggles in the name of the revolutionary process they open on to.

Sex Work as Reproductive Work

There are many reasons why we can insist on the kinship between the Wages for Housework movement and those struggles unfolding today that claim “sex work is work.”

First, each of these struggles emerged out of the formidable mobilizations of the feminist movement, which took place on the theoretical terrain as much as the practical one. If the Wages for Housework movement’s affiliation with feminism has always appeared evident, this has not been the same for the sex workers’ movement. We should recall that it was during a feminist conference that Carol Leigh first felt the need to speak about “sex work.”3 We can also note that, according to Silvia Federici, the feminist movement not only allowed the concept of sex work to emerge, but feminism may have also played a role in increasing the overall number of women engaged in sex work:

I think that to some extent, […] but […] to a limited extent, that the increase in the number of women who are turning to sex work has also had to do with the feminist movement. It has given a contribution to undermining that kind of moral stigma attached to sex work. I think the women’s movement has also given power, for example, to prostitutes to represent themselves a sex workers.

It’s not an accident that in the wake of feminist movement you have the beginning of a sex worker’s movement, throughout Europe, for instance. So that the stigma, the feminists, they really attacked that hypocrisy: the holy mother, that vision of women, the whole self-sacrificial, and the prostitute, which is the woman who does sexual work but for money.4

Federici’s definition of the prostitute as “the woman who does sexual work, but for money” points to yet another reason why it is legitimate to connect the struggles of housewives to that of sex workers: since work can exist even where there is no money, sex work is not solely a prerogative of professional sex workers.

One of the main contributions of feminist theorists, especially Marxist-feminists, was to show that just because an activity is not waged does not mean that it is not functional work relating to capitalism. In other words, it is not because an exchange appears to be free that it escapes from capitalist dynamics – much to the contrary. By analyzing “the history of capitalism from the viewpoint of women and reproduction,”5 Marxist-feminist theorists such as Federici have shown that domestic work performed by women – voluntarily inasmuch as it is considered to be what they naturally to do out of love – serves, beyond those who directly benefit from it – workers, future workers, or former workers – the interests of the capitalists, who consequently do not need to take into account the cost for this reproduction in the value of the labor-power they buy.

Beginning with ourselves as women, we know that the working day for capital does not necessarily produce a paycheck, it does not begin and end at the factory gates, and we rediscover the nature and extent of house- work itself. For as soon as we raise our heads from the socks we mend and the meals we cook and look at the totality of our working day, we see that while it does not result in a wage for ourselves, we nevertheless produce the most precious product to appear on the capitalist market: labor power.6

The diverse activities women perform at home – such as looking after the children, preparing meals for the men who come back from their day at work, or providing care for the elderly or ill – count as work that, although it may not not produce commodities in the same way the proletarian laborer does in the factory, nevertheless produces and reproduces what is necessary, indeed, “most precious,” to capitalists: the labor-power that a capitalist buys from the worker. According to this approach, there is no fundamental difference between ironing, cooking, and sex from the perspective of their functions in the capitalist mode of production – all of these activities relate to the more general category of reproductive work. Silvia Federici and Nicole Cox continue:

Housework is much more than house cleaning. It is servicing the wage earners physically, emotionally, sexually, getting them ready for work day after day. It is taking care of our children—the future workers—assisting them from birth through their school years, ensuring that they too perform in the ways expected of them under capitalism. This means that behind every factory, behind every school, behind every office or mine there is the hidden work of millions of women who have consumed their life, their labor, producing the labor power that works in those factories, schools, offices, or mines.7

And while some may think that sex now appears less and less as a service provided by a woman to her spouse after so-called “sexual liberation,” itself led by feminism, that “liberation” in fact only further burdens women:

Sexual freedom does not help. Certainly it is important that we are not stoned to death if we are “unfaithful,” or if it is found that we are not “virgins.” But “sexual liberation” has intensified our work. In the past, we were just expected to raise children. Now we are expected to have a waged job, still clean the house and have children and, at the end of a double workday, be ready to hop in bed and be sexually enticing. For women the right to have sex is the duty to have sex and to enjoy it (something which is not expected of most jobs), which is why there have been so many investigations, in recent years, concerning which parts of our body—whether the vagina or the clitoris—are more sexually productive.8

Finally, it should be noted that while Silvia Federici mostly refers to the heterosexual nuclear family, she does not see any end to the function of sex as work through homosexuality:

Homosexuality and heterosexuality are both working conditions…but homosexuality is workers’ control of production, not the end of work.9

This approach to sex, which treats it as an integral part of reproductive labor, allows us to reject the idea that there is some fundamental distinction between so-called “free sex,” as performed within the couple, and what we today call sex work, prostitution.

Or as in Leopoldina Fortunati’s puts it, “the family and prostitution are the main sectors, the backbone of the entire process [of reproduction]”:

Within the two main sectors, the fundamental labor processes are: (1) the process of production and reproduction of labor power and (2) the specifically sexual reproduction of male labor power. This is not to say that the family does not include the sexual reproduction of male labor power, but (despite often being posited as central) it is in fact only one of the many “jobs” that housework entails.10

From this point, Fortunati obliges us to think of the family and prostitution not as opposed institutions,  but rather complementary ones: “its function [of prostitution] must be to support and complement housework.”11

This approach to prostitution in terms of reproductive labor allows us not only to highlight a common condition of women – beyond the division between the mother and the whore, since even if one performs it freely, while the other explicitly asks for money, for both, sex is work – but above all allows us to better understand the position of the sex industry in the capitalist system. Whereas most contemporary theories are essentially interested in capitalist dynamics in the sex industry through an analysis of the relations of production and exploitation between sex workers and their bosses/pimps and/or their clients, this perspective invites us to ultimately consider these two figures as only intermediary forms of the exploitation which benefits, in the last analysis, capital. It then becomes necessary to stop interpreting the criminalization of sex workers exclusively as sexual repression (with evident gendered and racist dynamics) and begin to see it as a kind of repression that fundamentally serves specific economic interests which are secured through sex, class and gender dynamics.

A Whore Army

Yet the apparently shared position of housewives and sex workers in relation to capital as reproductive laborers should not obscure a fundamental difference between their respective situations: unlike domestic labor, sex work is stigmatized and criminalized. Whether it is a prohibitionist regime as in most states of the United States, a regulatory one as in Germany, or an allegedly abolitionist one in France, sex work is criminalized in almost every country in the world, with the exception of New Zealand and New South Wales (Australia) – two countries that nevertheless have strong restrictions on migrant labor. This particular situating of sex work within the broader category of reproductive labor is not without consequences, not only for sex workers themselves, but for all women and workers: the specific treatment of sex work, or more exactly, its evolution between criminalization and liberalization, needs to be read in the more general context of the tensions caused by the dynamics of capitalism, patriarchy, and racism that structure our society.

In her Caliban and the Witch, Silvia Federici provides us with a historical approach according to which the repression of prostitutes starting in the sixteenth century is linked with the emergence of the capitalist mode of production, for which the free character of women’s labor is a an essential foundation.

But no sooner has prostitution become the main form of subsistence for a large female population than the institutional attitude towards it changed. Whereas in the late Middle Ages it had been officially accepted as a necessary evil, and prostitutes had benefited from the high wage regime, in the 16th century, the situation was reversed. In a climate of intense misogyny, characterized by the advance of the Protestant Reformation and witch-hunting, prostitution was first subjected to new restrictions and then criminalized. Everywhere, between 1530 and 1560, town brothels were closed and prostitutes, especially street-walkers, were subjected to sever penalties: banishment, flogging, and other cruel forms of chastisement. […]

What can account for this drastic attack on female workers ? And how does the exclusion of women from the sphere of socially recognized work and monetary relations relate to the imposition of forced maternity upon them, and the contemporary massification of the witch-hunt?

Looking at these phenomena from a vantage point of the present, after four centuries of capitalist disciplining of women, the answers may seem to impose themselves. Though women’s waged work, housework, and (paid) sexual work are still studied all too often in isolation from each other, we are now in a better position to see that the discrimination that women have suffered in the wage work-force has been directly rooted in their function as unpaid laborers in the home. We can thus compare the banning of prostitution and the expulsion of women from the organized workplace with the creation of the housewife and the reconstruction of the family as the locus for the production of labor power.12

Later, during the French Revolution, a time that witnessed an extension of the sphere of consumption, prostitution was decriminalized in 1791. Clyde Plumauzille, who specializes in the history of prostitution in this period, discusses the organization of prostitution in the Palais-Royal:

Prostitution of the Palais-Royal then participates to a set of wider apparatus connected to the “revolution of consumption that affects the whole society” (Roche, 1887; Coquery, 2011): development of the advertising technics with the prostitutes’ directories, diversification of the offer in order to reach a wider public, ostentatious windows and “commodification” of prostitutional sexuality. [The] first sex market in the capital, the Palais-Royal thus facilitated the constitution of a type of prostitution firmly consumerist, between sexual and economic emancipation and commercialization of women’s body.13

This apparent liberalization was less the result of a weakening of control over women’s bodies than of an adjustment of the market to what appeared to be inevitable, even though women’s status left them with no other option than a dependency on men. However, if courtesans in the nicer districts were tolerated, even appreciated, the same cannot be said for prostitutes issuing from the working class, and the intensification of the policing and renewed confinement of prostitutes was in fact a response to this “massification” of prostitution within the popular classes.

To understand this repression of mass prostitution, we have to grasp the link between the regulation of prostitution and capitalist relations of production. Between the French Revolution and the Belle Époque, a long period unfolded in which the ensemble of institutions distinctive of the capitalist mode of production took hold in French society: the Directory, the two Empires, and the beginning of the Third Republic all consolidate the modern forms of exploitation that emerged during the last decades of the Ancien Régime, including the more advanced sectors of agriculture in the north of France and innovations in the chemical, textile, and coal mining sectors.14 The nineteenth century is marked by the generalization of market institutions and the process of rendering the laboring classes dependent upon the market and their employers. Prostitution, and the condition of women in general, did not escape this logic. With the increasing separation of the home from the workplace, as well as the mechanization of labor and the regulation of industries, women were caught in a kind of double bind – caught between the sectors that had little regulation (domestic work, sewing workshops) and largely excluded from the majority of those sectors that were regulated. When they entered the labor market, women played the role of a surplus workforce for capital, what Karl Marx calls the “industrial reserve army”:

By the destruction of petty and domestic industries it destroys the last resort of the “redundant population,” and with it the sole remaining safety-valve of the whole social mechanism.15

As a recent study on prostitution in the Goutte d’Or during the Belle Epoque shows, the regulation of prostitution actually met considerable resistance from sex workers by way of their growing refusal to work for an exclusive employer.16 The street prostitution of the “rebellious” can therefore be understood as a type of worker insubordination: it allowed proletarian women to earn an additional income in those cases where they also worked a waged job and, alternatively, to gain an income pure and simple when they did not have another job. In both situations, the lack of regulation in prostitution actually constituted a point of leverage for women workers – as an enhancement of their bargaining power against capital and patriarchy.

This relation between the role of regulation and sex work, and its connection to forms of labor insubordination among prostitutes, is significant. First, it indicates that we cannot separate sex work and work in general. Second, it shows that the struggles of sex workers possess a very precise gender and class dimension. Lastly, it points to the fact that there cannot be a strict opposition between a regulationist regime and an abolitionist/prohibitionist one. In both cases (and in the hybrid forms that lie between the two systems), it is a question of how to discipline prostituted women and put them to work, which these women then contest by asserting their interests and attempting to strengthen their bargaining power. Before coming back to these aspects in the contemporary era, we still have to understand the reasons for these abolitionist movements and trace their emergence.

Originally, from the end of the nineteenth century onward, women’s groups began to wage a struggle against prostitution in order to denounce this regulationism; while a moral panic concerning supposed white slavery [traite des Blanches] became successful internationally, the abolitionist movement met a very favorable reception, which led in 1946 to the Loi Marthe Richard,  which endorsed the closure of brothels. In its preamble, the 1949 United Nations Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others explains that “prostitution and the accompanying evil of the traffic in persons for the purpose of prostitution are incompatible with the dignity and worth of the human person and endanger the welfare of the individual, the family and the community.” According to this Convention, to be considered a trafficking victim, it is enough to be procured, enticed, or led away for purposes of prostitution. The Palermo protocols (adopted by the United Nations in 2000) proposes an alternative definition of trafficking:

the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.17

Although this definition is both wider (every form of exploitation can be for the purpose of trafficking) and more restrictive (it mentions “exploitation of prostitution” but nothing about “prostitution” in itself, and one would expect that its major victims experience it as a form of constraint or as someone taking advantage of their vulnerable situation) than the 1949 definition, it is still intentionally fuzzy since it does not define the notion of exploitation. This blurring allowed France to translate “exploitation of prostitution” into “pimping” [“proxénétisme”] when it introduced and adapted the definition of trafficking into its penal code. Since the definition of pimping in France is particularly wide – allowing the state to sanction any support given to the prostitution of others– this means that the new French trafficking infraction does not contradict the conception of trafficking upheld in the 1949 Convention. In other words, while common law measures do exist to respond to efforts to penalize forced labor, whether in prostitution or elsewhere, prostitution is still subjected to specific measures that penalize it as such.

What is the function of this specific penalization? What broader dynamics does it belong to? What are its consequences? Many answers have already been proposed to these questions, but too often these answers refer to the repression of a prostitution which is, if not idealized, at least ideal, in that it fails to account for the tensions and conflicts that traverse the sex industry. A synthesis of the main theories of the repression of sex work, then, with a view of the general dynamics hat traverse the sphere of reproductive labor, should help us to carefully grasp the stakes of the sex workers’ struggle. Beyond purely historical approaches, it is also worthwhile to take into account the function of this repression and the stigmatization of sex workers in relation to the sexual economy as such. If this repression does have a specific function in a capitalist economy that relies – among other things – on the appropriation of the free labor of women, then an understanding of this economic context is not sufficient to account for the multiple tensions determining this repression.

Paola Tabet’s work shows that if a certain stigma defines prostitution, it does not need the capitalist system to be expressed. In many non-capitalist societies, some women are stigmatized as prostitutes, not just because they take part in a sexual-economic exchange, but because they take part in an exchange that escapes the established rules of the exchange of women in a patriarchal system. Tabet’s works recall an earlier essay by Gayle Rubin, published in 1975 under the title “The Traffic in Women,” which also sets out to explain the oppression of women without subordinating it to its potential role in capitalism. In another essay, “Thinking Sex,” Rubin is especially concerned with analyzing in more detail the systems of sexual hierarchies that structure our societies:

Modern Western societies appraise sex acts according to a hierarchical system of sexual value. […]  Individuals whose behavior stands high in this hierarchy are rewarded with certified mental health, respectability, legality, social and physical mobility, institutional support, and material benefits. As sexual behaviors or occupations fall lower on the scale, the individuals who practice them are subjected to a presumption of mental illness, disreputability, criminality, restricted social and physical mobility, loss of institutional support, and economic sanctions.

Extreme and punitive stigma maintains some sexual behaviors as low status and is an effective sanction against those who engage in them. The intensity of this stigma is rooted in Western religious traditions. But most of its contemporary content derives from medical and psychiatric opprobrium.18

In this sense, prostitution is repressed and stigmatized as a deviance, akin to homosexuality, according to a system that constructs oppositions between different types of sexual practices such as the homosexual/heterosexual, free/venal, etc. Rubin’s theory thus presents the repression of sex work as not necessarily holding a subordinate function in regards to an economic order, but as taking place in an autonomous sexual system, in which external interests (economic, but also religious or medical) converge.

Elizabeth Bernstein, a theorist of neoliberalism, analyzes the repression of sex work as a way to reaffirm the boundaries between the intimate and the public sphere, and thus considers contemporary abolitionist campaigns as taking part in:19

a neoliberal (rather than a traditionalist) sexual agenda, one that locates social problems in deviant individuals rather than mainstream institutions, that seeks social remedies through criminal justice interventions rather than through a redistributive welfare state, and that advocates for the beneficence of the privileged rather than the empowerment of the oppressed.20

Thus the repression of prostitution appears not simply as a means to reinforce a certain economic order, but rather as a means to impose the neoliberal logic into the sexual economy itself. And precisely because sex work does not escape from neoliberalism any more than other sectors of productive or reproductive labor, it has to be considered from the same perspective as other sectors of reproductive labor.

In her research on what she calls “femonationalism,” Sara Farris notes that the migration of women who are pushed to work in the reproductive sector, contrary to the migration of migrant men, is quite supported by the state, in the context of the state’s withdrawal from the management of services such as child caring, and a context marked by increasing numbers of “national” women in the productive sector:

Rather than job stealers, cultural clashers, and welfare provision parasites, migrant women are the maids who help to maintain the well-being of European families and individuals. They are the providers of jobs and welfare: they are those who, by helping European women to undo gender by substituting for them in the household, allow those national women to become laborers in the productive labor market. Furthermore, migrant women contribute to the education of children and to the survival and emotional life of the elderly, thus providing the welfare goods from whose provision states increasingly retreat. […] The useful role that female migrant labor plays in the contemporary re-structuring of welfare regimes and the feminization of key sectors of the service economy accounts in a significant way for a certain indulgence by neoliberal governments and for the deceptive compassion of nationalist parties towards migrant women (and not migrant men). […] Despite attempts in the last few years by several EU countries, to establish “the demographic advantage of a certain nationality,” as Judith Butler put it, calls for assimilation addressed to migrant women – Muslim and non-Muslim alike – identify a specific role for them within contemporary European societies, insofar as they are regarded as prolific bodies of future generations and as mothers who play a crucial role in the process of transmission of societal values. As a useful replacement in the reproductive sector for national women, but also as potential wives of European men, migrant women become the target of a deceivingly benevolent campaign in which they are needed as workers, tolerated as migrants, and encouraged as women to conform to Western values.21

Femonationalism, as Farris defines it, names “the contemporary mobilization of feminist ideas by nationalist parties and neoliberal governments under the banner of the war against the perceived patriarchy of Islam in particular, and of migrants from the Global South in general.”22 To put it another way, the rhetoric of discourses that defend the integration of migrant women through labor appears, in the end, to be much less about these women’s interests than about those of the national economy and its workforce, with these female workers assuring the reproduction of the latter at a low cost. In this context, “the female migrant workforce thus seems to amount not to a reserve army, constantly threatened with unemployment and deportation and used in order to maintain wage discipline,” as it was common in the 1970s and 1980s to describe “women as extra-domestic waged,” but rather to “a regular army of extremely cheap labor.”23

Even if the encouragement for the migration of women destined to the reproductive sector seems to fall within a policy opposed to very severe restrictions on the migration of sex workers, these two distinct policies can actually be considered as complementary: first, we can note that the anti-trafficking discourse, and anti-prostitution discourse more generally, which aims to save women from migration networks that supposedly exploit them, and insists on the necessity for “reintegration,” that is to say, reintegration into the legal national economy (that means, primarily for migrant women, relegation to the domestic and care labor sector), do participate in what Sara Farris calls “femonationalism.” Although globalized capitalism dispossesses women from their means of survival, today especially in African and Asian countries, resulting in a massification of migration (and of prostitution), the repression of sex workers, in a context of the commodification of reproductive labor performed by migrant women, constitutes them as a “regular army of extremely cheap labor” on the model of domestic workers, because it has the effect of maintaining sex workers in a precarious situation.

To put it another way, since the repression of sex workers causes their precarization, this repression does not only initiate a shift in the balance of power in favor of clients, third parties, and pimps, but further serves the entire capitalist, patriarchal, and racist economic system that benefits from the cheap cost of this sector of reproductive labor. More precisely, in this sustained precarization of sex workers one can analyze their institutionalized constitution as the reserve army of the domestic workers, and therefore see the formation of a three-level system structuring women’s labor. At the first level, there is the female workforce, confined to the reproductive sector and paid less than men, and which participates in a system that still imposes a heterosexist model over women, since marriage appears as a means to reach a living standard that their wages do not independently allow. At the second level, migratory policies that maintain the cheap costs of domestic labor also reinforce the cheaper wages received by women hired to work in the productive sector. Finally, at the level of sex work, repression and stigmatization appear as threats to women who would not accept the conditions of exploitation in waged work, domestic work, or in marriage.

In this way, anti-sex work discourses – which only view the sexual exploitation of women in terms of non-commodified sex, and only see the basis for economic emancipation in legal forms of labor, especially in the productive sector – actually seem to encourage, contrary to what they claim, this exploitation through a form of work that is all the more exploited, since it appears as free, spontaneous, and natural. The demand for sex work as work, on the other hand, forces us to rethink the relations of reproduction with the aim of doing away with exploitation, whether waged or not.

Sex Work Against Work

As I have tried to show up to this point, the question of “prostitution” should not be restricted to a gender-only perspective. It is on the contrary necessary for the left to grasp the political content of sex work understood as a sector of reproductive labor. It is true, as Silvia Federici comments in her text “Reproduction and Feminist Struggle in the New International Division of Labor,” that the real stakes of reproductive labor have been too often ignored by the feminist movement itself:

If the feminist movement had struggled to make the state recognize reproductive work as work and take financial responsibility for it, we might not have seen the dismantling of the few welfare provisions available to us, and a new colonial solution to the “housework question.”24

For this reason, the sex work debate should be approached as a new occasion to (re)think this question, and furthermore, to build a true opposition to the liberal politics that has for so long controlled the discourse surrounding this question, with the consequences we have observed (femonationalism, liberalization of the sex industry only in favor pimps, an increase in the amount of work performed by women following state disengagement from public services, etc).

To affirm that sex work is work therefore appears as a necessary step insofar as it concerns the struggle against capitalism as well as women’s emancipation, above all their sexual emancipation. It is in this sense that we can qualify the political efficacy of this slogan “sex work is work” by repeating Kathi Weeks’ assessment of the Wages for Housework campaign as “a reformist project with revolutionary aspirations.”25 Indeed, if the struggle against the criminalization of sex work might initially appear to be a reformist project, essentially consisting of requests for a legislative change in order to ameliorate sex workers’ labor conditions, then to apprehend sex work as work nonetheless opens up more ambitious and expansive perspectives for emancipation.

Concerning the struggle against criminalization, it’s enough to recall that if sex workers can be defined as the reserve army of exploited women, be it because of waged work, domestic work, or marriage, then the improvement of their conditions can only be beneficial. In the same way, if the persistence of the stigma around prostitution acts like a threat upon all women in the sense that it not only limits their liberties, but above all legitimizes forms of violence against them, then the struggle against the stigmatization of sex work should be a priority in the feminist agenda. And in so far as the “anti-prostitution” struggle, on a global scale, essentially takes the form of the anti-trafficking (such as defined by the 1949 UN Convention) struggle – through the funding by western governments of NGOs intervening in the Global South to “save” the potential victims of this trafficking – the end goal of these politics would mean more autonomy for the sex workers concerned, who are today regular victims, in many countries, of a kind of  humanitarian imperialism through NGOs and personalities making up the “rescue industry.”26 Additionally, while a clear majority of sex workers in western countries are migrants or non-white workers, as are most of those “supporting” their activity and then condemned for pimping, in those countries the struggle against sex work mostly takes the form of a racist offensive that participates in the systematic incarceration of non-white populations. If some can take advantage of this situation, as it emerges from the racist division of sex work, in order to claim the need to penalize the male clients who benefit from sex work – and who are presumed to be primarily white – then the desire to restore equilibrium by reinforcing the very same instruments of this systemic racism seems, on the contrary, dangerous.27 My point is not to uncritically defend third parties and other beneficiaries of the sex industry: the decriminalization of sex work has to be understood as a way of reinforcing the autonomy of sex workers vis-à-vis the situations of clandestinity that make their exploitation easier. In this context, the frequently expressed fears that the recognition of sex work would only give more weight to the sexist and racist division of labor seem not only unfounded, but above all, this recognition constitutes a precondition for the struggle against this division and the oppressions it causes.

To refuse to recognize sex work is to effectively reinforce the division between “true” labor, especially waged work, entitled to be present in the public sphere, and “non-labor,” which takes place in the private sphere. The point is therefore to do away with this opposition between the productive sphere of waged work and the exchanges considered to belong to the non-commodified private sphere, since this opposition, which only serves to hide labor that is performed but not taken into account into the wage, is only profitable for capital:

We have learned from Marx that the wage hides the unpaid labor that goes into profit. But measuring work by the wage also hides the extent to which our familial and social relations have been subordinated to the relations of production – they have become relations of production  – so that every moment of our lives functions for the accumulation of capital. The wage, and the lack of it, have allowed capital to obscure the real length of our working day. Work appears as just one compartment of our lives, taking place only in certain times and spaces. The time we consume in the “social factory,” preparing ourselves for work or going to work, restoring our “muscles, nerves, bones and brains” with quick snacks, quick sex, movies, all this appears as leisure, free time, individual choice.28

In other words, the question is how to expand the scope of the feminist  slogan “the personal is political” in order to include not only the reproduction of male domination inside the private sphere, but also the reproduction of the dynamics favorable to capitalism. In other words, as Lise Vogel reminds us about domestic work, the division between the sphere of waged work and the sphere considered as merely part of the private sphere, especially in a patriarchal society, only reinforces the structures of domination:

The highly institutionalized demarcation of domestic labour from wage-labour in a context of male supremacy forms the basis for a series of powerful ideological structures, which develop a forceful life of their own.29

To affirm that “sex work is work,” and that sex, waged or not, can be work, must open the possibility for a process of dis-identification – to employ the term used by Kathi Weeks in reference to the Wages for Housework campaign – of women from the sexuality to which they are, in a patriarchal capitalist society, often constrained. As Cox and Federici put it, women can determine what they “are not.”30

In the same way, with the idea that “sex work is work,” even if the point is that we do not yet know which sexuality to (re)build in the perspective of a feminist struggle, it is at least a question of knowing about which one we do not want – a sexuality of services organized according to the sexist division of labor. As Silvia Federici writes:

We want to call work what is work so that eventually we might rediscover what is love and create our sexuality, which we have never known.31

Thus, with the “sex work is work” slogan, we do not mean to ask for sex work to be considered as “a job like the others,” so that its decriminalization would be its own end. The enforcement of such a liberal politics, as witnessed with the German or Dutch examples, essentially serves the interests of the bosses of the sex industry, so that the only effect of these policies is to put sex workers’ compensation in the hands of the capitalists. The point is, on the contrary, to reaffirm that if this recognition of sex work is necessary, it’s precisely because only though a clear identification of sex work will women then have the power to refuse it, within the framework of a broader struggle for the refusal of work and a radical refoundation of society and its dynamics of reproduction.

Conclusion

The analysis of sex work in terms of reproductive work brings many advantages.

First, by inviting us to look at the sex industry not only as a simple industry in which capitalist, sexist, and racist dynamics are deployed, it allows us to consider the fundamental role that sex work itself plays at the very heart of the capitalist system. In other words, the point is not only to consider sex workers’ exploitation by way of the direct beneficiaries of sex work – pimps, third parties, clients – but rather to consider these latter only as the mediators of the more global exploitation of women by capital.

Second, in allowing us to analyze the dynamics at work in the repression of sex work, a repression notably linked to the issue of managing migration, introducing sex workers into the more general category of reproductive workers, side by side with domestic or care workers, allow us to grasp the stakes of sex workers’ struggles in terms of the struggle against neoliberalism and especially its effects on migrant or Third World women.

Finally, by enabling us to rethink the very notion of labor, these analyses offer an opportunity to provide a new dynamic to the struggle against the appropriation of labor, a dynamic that can, in particular, allow us to take into account all those workers traditionally excluded from these struggles and who are often left to fight in isolation, in spite and in consequence of the devastating effects of capitalism on their lives (those who are precariously self-employed, single mothers, sex workers, domestic workers, midwives, etc), in the aim of radically calling into question the division of labor and the ideologies – especially racist and sexist ideologies – on which it rests.

This article was originally published in Période


  1. The former argument is regularly developed in texts written by abolitionist authors, see for instance, Janice Raymond’s book Not a Choice, Not a Job (Washintgon, D.C.: Potomac Books Inc, 2013); for the latter position, Lilian Mathieu, La fin du tapin, Sociologie de la croisade pour l’abolition de la prostitution (Paris: Bourin, 2013), 17. 

  2. For an overview of the discussions between the Wages for Housework movement and feminist and leftist movements, see for instance Silvia Federici and Nicole Cox, “Counterplanning from the Kitchen,” in Silvia Federici, Revolution at Point Zero, (Oakland: PM Press, 2012), 28-40, a response to “Women and Pay for Housework” by Carol Lopate. 

  3. Carol Leigh, “Inventer le travail du sexe,” in Luttes XXX – inspirations du mouvement des travailleuses du sexe, eds. Maria Nengeh Mensah, Claire Thiboutot and Louise Toupin (Montréal: Éditions du Remue-ménage  2011), 267-270 

  4. Silvia Federici, “Gender and Democracy in the Neoliberal Agenda: Feminist Politics, Past and Present,” Fifth Subversive Festival, May 13, 2013, beginning from 1:12:00. Transcription by Ellis Suzanna Slack, translation by Morgane Merteuil. 

  5. Entretien avec Silvia Federici: ’La chaîne de montage commence à la cuisine, au lavabo, dans nos corps,’” La voix du Jaguar, 2013. 

  6. Federici and Cox, “Counterplanning from the Kitchen,” 31. 

  7. Ibid.  

  8. Silvia Federici, “Why Sexuality is Work,” in Revolution at Point Zero, 25. 

  9. Silvia Federici, “Wages Against Housework,” in Revolution at Point Zero, 15.  

  10. Leopoldina Fortunati, The Arcane of Reproduction: Housework, Prostitution, Labour and Capital, (London: Autonomedia, 1995), 17. 

  11. Ibid., 18.  

  12. Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch, (New York: Autonomedia, 2004), 94-95. 

  13. Clyde Plumauzille, “Le ‘marché aux putains’ : économies sexuelles et dynamiques spatiales du Palais-Royal dans le Paris révolutionnaire,” Revue Genre 10 (Fall 2013): 21, 26. 

  14. See Henry Heller, The Bourgeois Revolution in France, 1789-1815 (New York: Berghahn Books, 2009). 

  15. Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 1, “Machinery and Modern Industry.” 

  16. See Alexandre Frondizi, Histoires de trottoirs. Prostitution, espace public et identités populaires à la Goutte d’Or, 1870 – 1914, Mémoire de thèse, 2007.  

  17. United Nations: “Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, supplement to the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime,” Article 3.  

  18. Gayle Rubin, “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality,” in Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, Carole Vance, ed. (Boston: Routledge, 1984), 279.  

  19. See Elizabeth Bernstein, Temporarily Yours, Intimacy, Authenticity and the Commerce of Sex (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2007).  

  20. Elizabeth Bernstein, “The Sexual Politics of the New Abolitionism,” in Differences 18, no. 3 (2007): 137.  

  21. Sara R. Farris, “Femonationalism and the ‘Regular’ Army of Labor Called Migrant Women,” History of the Present 2, no. 2 (Fall 2012): 193-195. 

  22. Ibid., 185. 

  23. Ibid., 193. 

  24. Silvia Federici, “Reproduction and Feminist Struggle in the New International Division of Labor,” in Revolution at Point Zero, 73. 

  25. Kathi Weeks, The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork politics and Postwork Imaginaries (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 136.  

  26. See Laura Agustin, “Kristof and the Rescue Industry: The Soft Side of Imperialism,” Counterpunch, January 25, 2012. 

  27. See Yasmin Vafa, “Racial Injustice: The Case for Prosecuting Buyers as Sex Traffickers,” RH Reality Check, June 11, 2014. 

  28. Federici and Cox, “Counterplanning from the Kitchen,” 35-36.  

  29. Lise Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Toward a Unitary Theory (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 160. 

  30. Federici and Cox, “Counterplanning from the Kitchen,” 34. 

  31. Silvia Federici, “Wages Against Housework,” 20. 

Author of the article

is a sex worker, secretary general of STRASS, member of the ICRSE office (International Comitee for the Rights of Sexworkers in Europe) and a representative of Western Europe in the office of NSWP (Network of Sex Work Projects).